As I viewed the splendor of the “wedding of the century,” this week I couldn’t help but recall the countless times I had stood at a marriage altar to administer wedding vows. I was reminded of the seriousness of the occasion for the couples involved.
I was moved by the realization that William and Kate met at the altar of Westminster Abbey, exchanged simple but all-encompassing vows, and departed the altar as husband and wife — now married in the eyes of both God and State. The changes effected in minutes could scarcely be more momentous!
The Abbey event has made me ponder why a couple would choose a church above all other settings for the ceremony, a building especially set apart for the worship of God.
I have been around young people enough to know that some moderns would say a church building is only one of many possible sites for a wedding. It has no other significance than its convenience. For extremes, I recall reading of a couple who went aloft with an official qualified to marry, exchanged vows high in the sky, then skydived to earth, harnessed together.
Another newsy case was about a bride and groom who snorkeled underwater, while pledging undying faithfulness to each other, as bubbles rose and underwater cameras rolled. I’ve heard of less venturesome couples who chose a city park or a museum, as the site for their vows. I will admit that all such locations can be legitimate.
But I think there are good reasons for Christians to exchange vows in a building especially dedicated to the worship of God, however grand or modest it might be. Here are reasons I’ve accumulated over a lifetime of ministry:
(1) It seems to me that a Christian wedding should be above all else a high moment of worship. So why not make its setting the place where worship is regularly carried out?
(2) A wedding is also an occasion at which a bride and groom make life-time pledges to one another “in the sight of God.” I don’t believe that the everywhere-present God is only present in the sanctuary of a church but the symbolism of the place can be taken full advantage of to enrich the spiritual meaning of the event.
(3) No one will deny that a wedding is a “rite of passage.” Certain events in life are epochal: birth, marriage, conversion, baptism, certain anniversaries, death. The situation is not always the same but the events themselves are momentous and they deserve appropriate elevation in the normal flow of life. I ask myself, what better setting for that elevation than the altar of the church?
(4) Also, the wedding is a community event so shouldn’t the Christian community be called to gather in their usual place of meeting.
(5) I’m especially moved by the fact that in the setting of worship family and friends look well beyond the event itself and pledge prayerful support should there be times of crisis in their future. This signals the ongoing nature of the faith community.
(6) I think of a wedding as a splendid occasion for Christian witness. The unchurched often attend and everything about the environment of the occasion should bespeak Christian meaning -– the altar itself, the pulpit furniture, the cross, even banners and art work — but especially the ritual, songs, and prayers.
(7) Finally, the setting of the church sanctuary should prompt a review of the meaning of marriage for many who attend. A friend, married more than 60 years, tells me that every time he and his wife attend a wedding they renew their own vows in the presence of God and in sync with what the minister is saying.
I concede again that the church altar is not the only possible setting for a modern wedding. Kathleen and I ourselves were married in her sister’s home. But under the secular hammering against the Christian faith that goes on all the time, there is great need for the rethinking of many ways in which theology and practice are kept together. Should weddings not be an important one of them?
These are my thoughts about weddings after more than 50 years of pastoral ministry. The Royal wedding of this past Friday in Westminster Abbey brings them all to the fore again.